There has been much written and spoken, much consternation and disgust, questions and not many answers on the topic of the future of GSM alarm communication. One simple fact is true; it's growing at unprecedented rates. More and more companies are installing more and more systems using cellular every day. How long, will the product I install tomorrow, be working? When and how will I need to replace it? How did we get to where we are? And at the end of the day; should I expect a sunset or a nightmare?
History of the GSM Network (AT&T & T-Mobile)
1G (AMPS) was deployed in 1973, but the alarm industry did not make use of it until 1992 (using the control channel side), of course it was sunset in 2008. AMPS had a life of 35 years however the security industry only used it for the last 16.
2G (GSM) was deployed around 1990 and has an expected life of 25 years. 2.5G (Edge) was a software upgrade to the GSM and was deployed in 2002. Both GSM and Edge will be turned off at the same time, slowly tower by tower as economics and equipment repair necessitate. Although everyone has been in meetings with the carriers none of them can or will say when that will happen; conventional wisdom says the GSM network will be replaced in five to 10 years.
3G is something called HSPA or UMTS, it uses totally different hardware and was widely deployed in 2005. It has an expected life of 25 years.
4G is being deployed as two different technologies. AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile all using something called LTE that will be a 700 Mhz band product. Sprint is rolling out what they call 4G using a Wi-Max technology from Clearwire. It's expected that Sprint may move to LTE in the future.
Today's alarm hardware
Today we are selling 2G (GSM) modules because only in the last few months have 3G (HSPA) modules even become available. Smartphones drive the technology. All the hardware manufacturers focus on building handsets for the first two to four years of the deployment of a new carrier technology wanting to cash in on the handset market that only has a typical lifespan of 18 months. Once most of the profit is squeezed out of that space, they then design and begin to deploy modules for use in M2M or telemetry applications. That being the case, the 3G (HSPA) modules are just starting to become available. The issue is, that they are still cost prohibitive. Security manufacturers could use the 3G modules on cell communicators today. But they would cost three times the current price. That will not be the case in 12 to 18 months as volume increases and the module manufacturers re-pay their initial investment and the costs become reasonable. When that occurs panel manufacturers will be able to offer cellular products that operate on 3G and have a future life expectancy out towards years 2025 to 2030.
The key is to use a product that has a modular design. It is also important that the panel you use has a history of backward and forward compatibility with its own devices. Manufacturers who plan forced obsolescence into their product are not who you want to partner with going forward in this new world of communication changes. You should expect your panel partner to allow you to replace that communications module and continue with the existing installed products in a relatively seamless fashion. If your manufacturer-partner likes to plan in obsolescence, maybe it's time to revisit that choice.
As far as 4G (LTE) AT&T and Verizon have purchased large blocks of spectrum from the FCC. They will begin deploying the 4G networks later in 2011. With that we can expect to see security communicators available and affordable four to five years from now using LTE. Those modules will have a forward life expectancy to about year 2040.
CDMA Network (Verizon and Sprint)
Sprint has said publicly that they will maintain the 2G (1XRTT) and 3G (EVDO) network until at least 2020. Verizon has said it will maintain the 1XRTT for at least five years and EVDO for another 10.
Recently the CDMA rates have become commensurate with GSM because of other M2M and telemetry applications moving into the CDMA network. To date no other security providers have communicators using this technology. CDMA has certain advantages over GSM, namely that Verizon's network is truly bigger and less crowded on the data side. The other interesting thing is that because CDMA is late to mature for M2M applications, the modules that are now becoming available are both 2G and 3G modules, so any future alarm communicators would likely already be designed as 3G and would have an expected life possibly to 2030.
Why GSM (2G and 2.5G) may last longer
A key point to consider as we try to predict the life of our current GSM solution; 3G and 4G networks do not support voice or SMS nearly as well as the older technology. Both the new 3G and 4G technologies are designed to IP packet DATA thru put. 4G (LTE) does not even have a voice or SMS component to it. However, the carriers create significant revenue from the voice and SMS that they are not going to want to soon give up. That coupled with the fact that in an IP data environment, a VoIP offering is easily and cheaply (or free) offered by folks like Google, Skype, or other. This significant amount of revenue is put at risk, if the carriers turn off GSM. These two facts may mean that GSM (2G and 2.5G) voice, SMS and data networks may be maintained for longer than we currently think.
I predict that as a general rule IP will continue to dominate commercial alarm communication and cellular will be the choice for residential. A few manufacturers now have UL 864 NFPA 72 approved GSM Fire Communication with NO OTHER technologies required and as that matures and AHJ's accept it, I expect the trend for commercial to move more toward cellular. I would not look for residential to trend toward IP, with the exception of very large homes that include home automation systems and/or managed networks. The other exception to that would be Managed Facilities-based Voice Network (MFVN) and Fiber Optic Services (FiOS) to the curb in large housing developments. As that is deployed, IP for alarm communication will be an obvious choice.
Attrition: prevention IS the only cure
As we migrate from 2G to 3G and on to 4G the cost of transmitting the data is reported to be 50 percent of the previous generation. Bear in mind that the cost of the data is not the total cost you pay per month, just a small piece. However, if that prediction holds true, cellular will continue to become more affordable and will continue to be the product of choice for alarm communications. It will remain the choice even with alarm companies having to change out the communicators every 10 to 15 years. That is only one of the many reasons you should use a panel platform that is forward and backwards compatible.
In today's churning technology world, with 12- to 18-month life cycles on cell phones, combined with the summer door knocker programs, the days of the customer using the same old panel for 15 to 20 years is over. If you don't keep your customer close to you and up to date on the latest advances, they will find someone who will. Not to mention that once or twice every summer each of your customers will get a knock on their door and will be told any number of convincing stories to try to get them to leave you, and go with whatever these guys happen to be selling. You can't afford to let your customers get stale and you need to make them as sticky as possible.
Cellular-enabled panels allow all kinds of advancements that tie the users to their system, adding value and opportunities for RMR. Just simply giving users the ability to arm/disarm their system from any cell phone or check status remotely while in their car provides end users with much more peace of mind as a customer. If you haven't made the jump to installing your panels on the next technology, instead of the last technology, you are about to get left behind.
Mark Hillenburg is the product architect, Digital Monitoring Products (DMP), Springfield, Mo. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.